Skyrocketing fuel costs, be damned — vacationers are expected to open their maps and take to the road in record numbers in the weeks ahead, though many may scale back their spending in other ways to offset the budget-busting cost of a fill-up.
“High gas prices won’t deter Americans from traveling,” predicts Sandra Hughes, travel vice president for the American Automobile Association (AAA). “Families will travel closer to home, they will travel for fewer days and will save money by staying in less-expensive hotels and eating in cheaper restaurants. But they will continue to take vacations and plan getaways,” she says.
The AAA forecasts that 84 percent of all travelers will reach their destinations by car this summer, which is an increase of about 1.8 percent over 2006. Based on the association’s projections, more than 115 million Americans will hit the highways during the summer's three main holidays, Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day.
“Even with today’s high gas prices, driving can be cheaper than flying,” says Megan Edwards, founder and editor of travel Web site RoadTripAmerica.com. Driving also unshackles travelers from the constraints of bus or train timetables and the inconvenience of flight delays and security checkpoints at the airport.
“Unlike planes, cars give you the great freedom of being able to decide exactly where you want to go and at what pace, stopping and starting as the mood strikes, going for a hike or a picnic, or stopping for a roadside barbecue,” says Jamie Jensen, travel expert and author of the book Road Trip USA.
Many of us have spent at least one summer piled with the siblings in the backseat of the family wagon, minivan or SUV, playing car-spotting games and singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” en route to some distant destination. “The road trip is the quintessential American experience, a national rite of passage,” Jensen says. “Our country grew up with cars, and our towns and cities are completely defined by cars and roads.”
If you’re thinking about exploring the open road this summer, Edwards stresses that proper planning is the key to making a road trip memorable in a good way. “Unfortunately, the most common memory-making events on road trips are those that are unpleasant,” Edwards says. “Nobody ever forgets four flat tires in the middle of the Mojave Desert on a hot August day.”
One common mistake that she says people make is to try and drive too far a distance in too short a time. “Not only is it dangerous, it can turn the best of friends into angry, tired monsters,” Edwards says. “A good itinerary is balanced, so that fatigue doesn’t become an issue.”
Road trip expert Jensen advises to approach travel agendas with creativity and enjoyment in mind, rather than adopt the straight-line approach. “Planning a trip is a great way to indulge your passions, whatever they may be — Civil War battles, music festivals, minor league baseball, trendy hotels or finding the world’s cherriest cherry pie,” he says. “I’ve always been powerfully affected by those little dots on a map that signify a scenic route, and the most scenic roads tend to be the most fun to drive.”
What makes a particular vehicle well suited for an extended excursion depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. “It’s a matter of budget and style,” says Edwards. “For some, a vintage Edsel is the only car that will do, while for others, whatever’s available at the rental company is perfectly fine.”
Jensen defines the best road-tripping models as those that afford a true “snapshot” moment. “If you’re cruising along some tropical beach, you’ll probably want a cool-looking convertible, but your tales of crossing the Rockies will be that much more impressive if you can illustrate them with a shot of some powerful-looking 4x4,” he says.
For their part, automakers have been optimizing vehicles for road trips virtually since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line. Some of today’s models push that notion to the extreme.
Take, for example, the redesigned 2008 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan minivans, which will offer what the automaker calls a “family room on wheels” when they debut this fall. Available highway-friendly amenities will include second-row seats that can swivel to face the rearmost row with a table that folds out between them; a dual DVD system that can play different media at the same time; real-time traffic reporting with the navigation system; iPod-like hard-drive media storage; anti-stain/anti-odor cloth seats; and a built-in 110-volt power inverter. It will also be the first model to offer the new Sirius Backseat TV system that will deliver three channels of satellite-beamed kids’ programming for in-vehicle viewing.
“Today's car buyers are very savvy shoppers who lead very active lifestyles,” says David Rooney, Chrysler’s marketing and global communications director. “They appreciate useful features that will make their lives easier, save them valuable time and make their experience behind the wheel truly pleasant.”
Other automakers, like Toyota’s youth-oriented Scion division, take a more basic approach to road-trip enjoyment. “We focus on providing our buyers with a lively powertrain, sporty driving dynamics and ample room for four passengers,” says Scion corporate manager Steve Haag, “then we add a great-sounding audio system to keep them entertained along the way.”
Just as there are many destinations that beckon from the open road, there is an equally large assortment of vehicles in which to make the journey. Based on our test drives of virtually every model on the market, we highlight 10 vehicles that ForbesAutos editors think are well suited to specific types of road-trips, from a family vacation to carting the kids off to college and taking that well-earned getaway as empty nesters.
Our list is not comprehensive. Being that ForbesAutos focuses on luxury, high-performance and high-interest vehicles, editors' selections skew toward those categories. And as Jamie Jensen reminds us, it's not all about the vehicles: One of the keys to achieving true road trip nirvana is to heed the words of a Yogi — Yogi Berra, that is — who suggests, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”
Click on the “slide show” link above to see our top choices for road-trip vehicles.